One of my favourite non-SFF blogs is The History Girls. And one of my favourite History Girls is Karen Maitland. I’ve been wanting to read her ever since I saw reviews for Company of Liars, but as is so often the case never got around to it. Today marks not one, but two book birthdays for Karen however, with the paperback release of last year’s The Vanishing Witch and the release of her latest novel, The Raven’s Head. I was fortunate enough to receive review copies for both of them. I reviewed The Vanishing Witch yesterday and check back for my review for The Raven’s Head tomorrow. But today I get to bring you an Author Query with Karen in which she has some fascinating answers to offer to my questions.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Karen Maitland?
I suppose you could say, Karen Maitland is little piece of each of her characters, mixed together with fragments of their experiences and blended with spoonfuls of their dreams and nightmares.
I’ve was storyteller even I was small child, constantly creating adventure stories for myself using marbles as the characters and my bed as a landscape, but I never realized I could be a writer. It wasn’t exactly a career option offered at school. Going to university as a mature student gave me confidence and also the vital skills of research which I’ve needed for the historical novels. But equally importantly I’ve been lucky enough to work in all kinds of jobs from sexing chicks to dancing, library work to university lecturing and have travelled widely, so I’m able to draw on all of kinds of experiences for my novels which help both with creating the big dramatic scenes, but also small details.
For example, there is a scene THE RAVEN’S HEAD in which one of characters examines fragments of a resin called dragon’s blood or Edah amsellah. Many years ago in North Africa, I saw an Arabic merchant hold these translucent blood-red shards up to the sun to demonstrate their fine quality to his customers. It was a scene that has not changed since medieval times. Years later, as I was writing, that memory resurfaced to form part of novel.
How would you introduce people to Vincent, the main character in The Raven’s Head?
His master is forever telling him he is useless; the count’s daughter, whom he’s madly in love with, doesn’t know he exists, but 17 year old Vincent is one of life’s eternal optimists. Abandoned to raise himself as an infant, he had the worst possible start in life, but he’s always managed to survive by his wits and now finds himself an apprentice to a wizened old librarian in the service of a powerful French Count. But Vincent is a dreamer, always wanting more. He’s surrounded by stories and in the stories it’s always the lowly orphan that makes his fortune and wins the girl, so why shouldn’t he? The trouble is he doesn’t actually want to work to earn his money.
Vincent discovers a secret, he thinks he can use to blackmail his way to a fortune, but being Vincent, nothing ever goes according to plan and he finds himself fleeing for his life. But ever the optimist, he is sure his unusual blackmail method will work on others, only to find himself in far worse danger than he could have dreamed. He’s trapped in a deadly game even he can’t talk his way out of. Those stories he read failed to warn him you should never threaten an alchemist.
Like your other novels, The Raven’s Head is set in the early Middle Ages. What draws you to writing about this period?
It is a time which has frightening similarities to our own, from rapid climate change, the clash of Christian and Muslim empires, economic breakdown and diseases such as ebola which are as frightening now as the plague was then. One of the characters in THE RAVEN’S HEAD is a medieval alchemist, but their goal was no different from that of modern medical science – to prolong life and defeat death.
It was age of color, travel, adventure, of great invention and knowledge streaming in to the west from places as far away as China , but also a time when myth and magic, ghosts and omens were part of everyone’s life. Today we separate religion from science, astrology, astronomy, mathematics and medicine, but in the Middle Ages all of those things were part of Christian religion. For example, they believed God had created plants giving them the shapes and colors that would tell man what illnesses they could be used to cure, but that in order to work they must be picked according to the astrological charts. The challenge of trying to see a world which is so like our own, through medieval mind which would interpret the same events very differently is endlessly exciting.
Judging by the synopses on your website, a recurring element in your books seems to be the power of the Church, the superstitions and mysticism that surrounded it, and the way they affect the common people. Why is religion such a powerful subject to the Medieval mind?
The first reason was economic survival. The Church was the biggest employer and land owner in the country. Many people entered the religious life as children in minor orders simply to get a free education. Older people often became monks or nuns in later life so that they could be housed and looked after. Vast armies of lay-brothers and sisters were employed to perform practical chores. Bishops had their own armies and nearly every man or woman in the country would have traded with the Church either buying from them or selling to them. Lay people would have supplied fish, wine, wood, cloth, spices, horse-shoes and every imaginable craft and commodity to churches and monasteries and their thousands of farms and buildings. That’s why if an individual was excommunicated by the Church it was almost a death sentence, because that person was cut off from work, trade, health care, and charity. You may not have believed what the Church taught, many didn’t even in the Middle Ages, but your life was ruled by the Church’s rituals.
The second reason was the same as the one that makes us read horoscopes or carry lucky charms today. Life could be cruel. Floods could sweep away your home, drought leave your family starving. Death could strike without warning in a thousand different ways. A child who might be healthy in the morning could fall sick by the evening without any obvious reason.
People were desperate for some means of controlling the unpredictable. A belief in a god who ruled these things, or in angels, demons who healed or harmed, helped to make sense of it all. If God or spirits were controlling events, it meant people had a chance of influencing them through prayer, offerings or superstitious rituals. We all know the feel of being totally helpless in a crisis, when you just want to doing something, anything! And if your lot in this life was miserable, then it was easier to bear if you could hope that in the next life the balance would be redressed. Heaven and hell were never far from their thoughts, because they knew at any hour they could find themselves there without warning.
In your novels you roam far and wide over the European continent. From Portugal to Iceland in Falcons of Fire & Ice, to France in The Raven’s Head and all over the British Isles in this and your other books. Is there a country in Medieval Europe you’d like to explore in the future?
I’d love to set a novel in Medieval Greece or the Greek Islands. We read a lot about ancient Greece, but not so much about the medieval period there. It was time of great interface between Christian and Muslim worlds and just like now huge waves of refuges from North Africa and Europe flooded into the islands. Merchants, knights and crusaders moved through, often settling there and even waves of holidaymakers in the form of pilgrims came in by the shipload, trying to avoid pirates and people traffickers. It was a fascinating and turbulent melting pot and some unique cultures developed there, particularly on the islands in this period. Naturally, I would have to go to Greek islands again to carry out some research and have to endure all that sea, sun and sangria. But I’d be willing to make that sacrifice for the sake of the novel!
Writing historical novels is most often preceded by copious research. How do you find the balance between showing off all you’ve found and oversharing? And what do you with all those fabulous tidbits you find that just won’t fit into a story?
The key is to think yourself into the mind of the character. In THE VANISHING WITCH, one of my main characters is a cloth merchant. In his trade he would take a keen interest in fashion – how much cloth would it take to make a houppelande or the color of a dress. When I am writing from his point of view, I can put in details about his wife’s gown because he would take a professional interest in it. But if I am writing from the point of view of a peasant boy, he wouldn’t notice what his sister is wearing, so I don’t put fashion detail in there, even though I have researched it so that I can picture it.
The first duty of a novelist is to tell a gripping story. You have avoid slowing down an action scene by describing the wall-decorations in the room, because if the two characters are fighting, they wouldn’t be aware of the color of the walls, but if the character is alone in a unfamiliar building, he might. The important thing is to make the research work for the plot. You wouldn’t want to include pages of description of how medieval cloth was made, even though as the author, you have to know that. But if you discover that the fullers in that industry developed particular health problems, that illness could become a clue to a character’s secret identity, which another character might spot.
At the end of my novels, I have a section of Historical Background information for readers who want to know more about what is behind some of things mentioned in the book. In THE RAVEN’S HEAD, you’ll find a section on medieval alchemy, where I put in some of those fascinating facts I discovered. I also have a glossary of some of the medieval words I used. I hope readers will understand what the words mean simply from the context as they read the novel, but the glossary gives a few more fascinating tidbits for those readers who want them, without interrupting the story.
What’s next for you? Any appearances or conventions planned?
Some great events coming up for me. From 31st March to 2ndApril, I am doing a tour of bookshops in three cities – Peterborough, York and Lincoln. Then on 15th April in Yeovil I’m discussion with two of my absolute favorite novelists – Deborah Harkness who wrote the fantastic ‘Discovery of Witches’ Trilogy and Katherine Clements who write ‘The Scarlet Ribbon’. In June I am heading out to France to take part in the wonderful Le Havre festival on the beach, as the French translation of my novel THE GALLOWS CURSE has recently been published there, followed by the Sidmouth Festival at Kennaway House,. In August I am tutoring a week-long Arvon Course on Historical Fiction with another of my favorite writers Manda Scott. I am really excited about meeting the students on that course and hopefully discovering some new historical writers of the future and in September I’m leading a Historical Crime and Thriller workshop for writers as part of the Norwich Crime Festival. In between all of that, I will be trying to finish my next novel!
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
I love antiques, not the valuable works of arts, but bits and pieces of ordinary people’s lives – rusty old lamps, toys, workmen’s tools or weird inventions that never quite took off, even shards of ancient pottery or fragments of old manuscripts or letters. I hate shopping for clothes or food, but I can spend hours shambling round junk shops, scrabbling in dusty boxes. I love old things I can hold and feel that I am reaching back through the centuries and touching the hand of person who made it or used it.
Using old tools myself, makes me appreciate what was involved in that craft or job. A friend made me a replica of a Saxon drill to drill holes in wood, which I’ve found not only works better than many modern drills for jobs around the house, but I quickly learned which muscles started to ache and exactly where a workman would have pains if he had to use it all day.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
Not a new book, but The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It’s a book adult readers might have missed, because it was marketed as a young adult book, possibly because the main characters are teenagers. But this is definitely a book for adults too. I’ve read it twice and I don’t usually do that. Set in India, it is one of the most atmospheric, chilling and haunting books I’ve read for long time.
A book which is out in pb this year is ‘A History of Loneliness’ by John Boyne about an elderly catholic priest who has always tried to do the right thing, but now fears looking back he might made a terrible error of judgment. It is very topical book being about child abuse, but a very beautiful and poignant story. I belong to a readers group and as in most readers groups, the members usually disagree wildly about how good they think a book was, but all the members who’ve read this so far, thought it a great book, which is a first for us, I think, except for the brilliantly written autobiography ‘When a Crocodile eats the Sun’ by Peter Godwin, which we all loved too.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
My novels are shelved alphabetical by author and my non-fiction by subject, so all the books on the history of cooking are together, next to the history of false teeth. At least that’s how it starts out, and one of my ‘must do’ rituals before I begin a new novel is to spend time carefully re-shelving all the books and research papers I used for the last book. But as I write the new book, I start to build little piles around me of all the reference books, maps and papers I am using for the novel. The piles grow and grow, so that towards the end I am working in a cave built of books, with only a narrow entrance for me to squeeze through to reach my desk.
I can’t bear to part with books, so when I am old they’ll find me in my house scuttling through a labyrinth of tunnels made entirely of books and my ghost will haunt anyone throws a single one of those books away.
Bio: Karen Maitland travelled and worked in many parts of the United Kingdom before settling for many years in the beautiful medieval city of Lincoln, an inspiration for her writing. She is the author of The White Room, Company of Liars, The Owl Killers, The Gallows Curse and The Falcons of Fire and Ice. She has recently relocated to a life of rural bliss in Devon.